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Interview: Director Andrew Ahn on ‘Driveways’ and the Late Brian Dennehy

Director Andrew Ahn on the set of 'Driveways'

Director Andrew Ahn screened his sophomore film, Driveways, at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival in 2019, and now, after a May 2020 release, it’s back in the awards conversation. The late Brian Dennehy delivers a sentimental performance as a Korean War veteran who befriends a young boy, Cody (Lucas Jaye), when his mother, Kathy (Hong Chau), comes to clean out her sister’s house. I had the opportunity to speak with Ahn about the process of making this film, working with these three incredible performers, and Asian-American representation in major movies.

Q: Thanks so much for talking to me today.

A: No problem – I think I recognize you from a YouTube video that you did outside our Tribeca premiere in 2019!

Q: Yes, that was so long ago. I really liked the film and was realizing that Brian Dennehy was still alive then. I’m very happy to be coming back to this film now. How did you first learn about Driveways and get attached to the film?

A: I was attached to the film through our producer Joe Pirro. He had seen my first feature, Spa Night, and we had met and chatted. He really responded to the film, and he had been developing the screenplay written by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen for Driveways for a number of months. A couple months after he first met, he sent me the screenplay and said, hey, I think you’ll be into this. I read it, and I was immediately struck by the script’s humanity. I had read many scripts at that point looking for my next project, and none of them had that quality I was looking for where the characters don’t just feel like puppets, they feel like human beings. I had pitched to Joe and to our other producer James Schamus the idea of casting Kathy and Cody with Asian-Americans. That was something I had tried before and had been rejected. It’s a real credit to Joe and James that they thought it was a really fabulous idea and that they wanted to move forward with it, and with me. That just felt really great and exciting, that I could find a script that’s so beautiful and find a way to connect it to who I am as a filmmaker, and get to work with really wonderful collaborators. It really felt like such a dream project to go into as my second feature.

Q: There are three formidable performances here. Let’s talk about Hong Chau first – what did you know of her work before this, and what did you think she would bring to this role?

A: I had seen Hong in Treme and just thought she was so good in it. So grounded, so beautiful. There’s just such a natural charisma that you can’t direct – an actor either has it or they don’t. By the time we were thinking about casting, she was getting a lot of attention for Downsizing. Similarly, she brought so much humanity to that role that I just knew she was the right person for this. Hong is astounding. She makes every scene she’s in just that much more interesting, even if it’s kind of a transition scene or a throwaway scene. She just finds a way into it that makes it really engaging. One of the first scenes that we shot with her was early in the film when she tries to get into April’s house and the front door is locked, so she tries to undo this chain lock. It’s a quick scene, scripted very simply. I was watching from a monitor Hong trying to open this door, and it was so good. It’s just a character trying to open a door, you know. The other thing that I really appreciated about Hong was that she really loves to do the work. There was a scene where she has to move all these moving boxes and clean the house. Our production designer and art team had created these boxes that didn’t really have anything in them, just a little bit of weight so that they weren’t super empty. Hong picked one up and was like, put some books in this and make it heavy. She loved doing that and getting sweaty. When you see her clean the house in the film, she’s really cleaning the house. That was so cool. She didn’t want to be coddled, she really loved the process. That’s such a gift as a director. After Watchmen and Homecoming, she has to be a movie star. I’m so glad that I got to work with her on our film before she gets too big.

Q: There’s someone else in the cast who’s a little more at the beginning of his career – Lucas Jaye. Where did you find him and what do you see for his future?

A: What I loved about the process of finding Lucas was that we really had no idea. It was such a discovery. It’s not like we had a list of young Asian-American actors that we were going out to. We really had to find our talent pool. We worked with Avy Kaufman, the best casting director in the business. She sent me Lucas’ tape, and what I loved about his audition was that he just had such a focus. He had this interesting quality of looking and feeling very young but at the same time having an old soul. That to me was so much at the heart of who Cody is. We did a callback with Lucas, and a chemistry read between him and Hong. Something that a lot of kid actors do is that, after they finish their last line, they’ll look at you or at the camera to see if they’ve done a good job. Lucas had already realized that he just had to be present in the scene. I’m one of those directors who doesn’t immediately say cut, and that can make some actors really nervous. Lucas just stayed in the moment, and he would stay looking at Hong and just be mother and son in this way that, even for grown-up actors, can be hard to do. We did do something with Lucas for the shoot where I didn’t want him to over-rehearse so we actually didn’t show him the full script. We had given the full script to his parents and he knew what the story was, but I didn’t show him the scripts for the scenes we were shooting until right before. It’s a real testament to his sponge-like brain that he could memorize these lines and be in the moment. I think that with some actors, kid actors especially, they feel like they have to have every word right. They can kind of beat a scene to death in their minds. I wanted Lucas to feel like he could be present and have fun and be a kid. If he made a mistake, that’s okay. We could do another take. That was a really fun process to work with him and find that life that he brings to the role so beautifully.

Q: And then, of course, there’s Brian Dennehy, who was the most famous of this cast, at least when the movie was made. What stories can you share about working with him, and is there anything that feels more poignant now that he’s gone and the film is still being talked about?

A: It was such an honor to get to work with Brian and to have this experience. He’s won Tony Awards and Golden Globes. He’s had such an amazing career. To get this opportunity felt really special. I was really nervous about meeting him for the first time and working with him. What I quickly realized is that he really loves the collaborative process. He loves doing the work and talking about character and story. My fear was that he was going to come in, do whatever he wanted, and then be like, you’ve got what you’ve got, I’m going to go sit in an air-conditioned room. But Brian really loved working and trying to do each scene the best he could. There’s a scene at the end of the film with Del and Cody. We had shot Brian’s close-ups and then Lucas’ close-ups next, and we were done with the scene. After it, Brian came up to me and said, Lucas was so good and he was trying some things that really inspired me, I’d love the opportunity to do my side over again. That was such a sign of someone who was so motivated and passionate about their work, who was so humbled to tell me he was inspired by his young costar. It was so cool to see that he didn’t just want to relax but to stay working. When we were in between takes and set-ups, waiting for rain delays, Brian would stay on set with us. He sat in the chair that Del sits in in the movie. There was a little candy bowl filled with butterscotches that he would just demolish even though they were technically set dressing. He would tell us stories about his career and fun projects that he got to work on. I hope that when I’m Brian’s age, I’m as motivated as he is, that I have that passion to do the work and be the best after I’ve accomplished so much. That was so cool and really special to be a part of.

Q: I know that Hong was nominated for a Film Independent Spirit Award last year for her performance, and now Brian is being campaigned for an Oscar. What do you think his chances are?

A: Awards are such a nerve-racking thing. There’s so much that’s just out of your control. For me, this awards campaign is less about can we nab that Oscar, and more about telling people how amazing Brian Dennehy was, as an actor, as a human being. To have this opportunity to tell stories about him and to praise not just his work on this film but his entire career, I’m more than happy to do that. I’m so excited that people are really recognizing his work and finding the film. It’s definitely a smaller movie but I think something that he does for the film is to make it feel so emotionally expansive. That’s so important, especially now in these times that we feel so disconnected from each other. Brian brought this feeling of connection and generosity and kindness that only comes with perspective and age. I just really hope that people get to see this film and what a beautiful job he did for our movie.

Q: What has it been like to be eligible in two different awards years?

A: It’s such a goofy thing. We qualified for the Spirit Awards because of Tribeca. We qualified for these other awards because of our distribution. I’m just glad people are getting to see it. It’s also very funny because Lucas has really grown up and he looks like a teenager. It would have been so awesome to have gone through this process with Brian around. I really hope that he’s seeing what we’re doing and all the praise he’s getting. It would have been really fun for Brian and Lucas especially to do a little bit of a press tour and have fun. They became such good friends on that set. They really enjoyed each other’s company and would talk about theater productions they had done. Brian was helping Lucas with a British accent just for fun that they would work on between takes. They were super chummy, and that was such a gift to our film. That friendship is such at the heart of the movie, and the fact that it’s authentic feels so helpful to make this film what it is. I wish that they had had the opportunity to reunite. I don’t know if they got a chance to see each other after we finished filming. At the Tribeca premiere, Brian was there but Lucas wasn’t, and then at Berlin a couple months before that, Lucas was there but Brian wasn’t. At least their friendship was captured in the film.

Q: There’s a deceased character who is such a catalyst for the film. Do you think that death is being talked about more in movies and TV today, and do you think that drove the film as much as the living characters in it?

A: I always think of the characters that aren’t necessarily present or characters that aren’t necessarily even human characters, like a location or a specter. Those are always really interesting to me. With Kathy’s sister April having passed away before the film opens, it was something that I really tried to explore and examine. I think that there’s this desire for that character to be well-drawn and for us to find this understanding of who that person is. The fascinating thing about the perspective of Driveways and my perspective on the people who have passed in our lives is that, as much as we want to rediscover them, to see and feel them again, there’s no way to do that. There’s this kind of tease that here’s all of April’s stuff, but we actually don’t fully get to know who she is, and maybe that’s the point. The stuff that we leave behind is never going to fully encapsulate the beauty and the joy and tragedy of this human being. I never wanted it to be too cartoony, where Cathy fully understands her sister and reconciles with her. The point isn’t that they reconcile, it’s that Cathy can move on and find some sort of peace even if that isn’t fully satisfying. It’s something that many of us are thinking about now during this pandemic. We had no idea that this pandemic was going to happen when we were making this film, but it goes back to the idea that stories are universal whether they were made today, twenty years ago, or centuries ago. There’s something about humanity that we can recognize as long as the story is told well.

Q: You mentioned your excitement at getting to have Asian-Americans in these roles. Where do you see the state of casting and inclusion in Hollywood and independent films, and what work do we still have to do?

A: I’m so excited that there seems to be some growing momentum for Asian-American films. We’ve got Minari out, which is a beautiful film. Last year, we had The Farewell, and Searching, and Crazy Rich Asians, of course. It’s cool that the industry and the producers and financiers are more excited by these stories than they may have been in the past. It’s still such a tricky game, where you need someone with a name in order to finance your movies, whether it’s Hong Chau or Steven Yeun or Awkwafina. It felt for a while like Awkwafina was doing every Asian-American movie because she was a big name. For me, it’s still tricky. What’s considered financeable or bankable, that’s still a system that’s steeped in an old tradition. There need to be more opportunities for Asian-American filmmakers and actors to show the talent that we have. Part of that is financing, getting the resources to make those films. I think that we’re slowly getting there. It’s complicated – we need more, we need more opportunity, we need more actors to get their chances to shine and show that they’re as good as these other bankable stars. I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing, which is to work with interesting actors and to encourage a next generation. This is what I’m so excited about for Lucas. I hope he becomes the next Brad Pitt. That would be so awesome. Christian Bale started off as a kid actor and is Christian Bale. Why can’t that happen for young Asian-Americans too? That’s really what I’m hoping for. I think it’s a long game. But I think the talent exists, and the passion exists, and it’s just about people recognizing it and acknowledging it.

Driveways is currently available to watch on VOD.

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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